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Have a Baja Moment! Visit the Annual Pitahaya Festival in Miraflores

Have a Baja Moment! Visit the Annual Pitahaya Festival in Miraflores

Mexican towns love their festivals and most towns have an annual celebration centered around a theme based on something the town takes pride in. Here in Southern Baja, Puerto Lopez Mateos honors their diligent conservation of the loggerhead sea turtle, Cabo Pulmo commemorates the founding of their national marine park, and  Miraflores celebrates the pitahaya fruit as an important and ancient part of Mexican gastronomy. Pita-what?

Pitahaya Festival

Miraflores’ annual Pitahaya Festival celebrates the harvesting of delicious cactus fruit.

Pitahaya” is the Spanish term for cactus fruit. Locally, cacti of the genus Stenocereus, Pitaya Dulce (sweet pitaya) and Pitaya Agria (bitter pitaya), are sought for their sweet fruit, but all cacti produce fruit of varying quality. The 17th century mission priest Father Miguel del Barco described the fruit as “excellent…worthy of being on the table of the greatest of kings. Their flesh is juicy, mild, delicate, and very delicious.”

Pitahaya Festival

Not only is pitahaya fruit delicious, it’s packed with antioxidants.

Miraflores’ pitahaya festival was the brainchild of one of the town’s mayors who recognized the economic benefits realized by Cabo San Lucas from their regular fishing competitions. Wanting his community to benefit similarly, he came up with a different kind of competition to draw spectators and their money. Miraflores may not have oceanfront, but it is blessed with vast forests of Pitahaya cactus, as one discovers if they venture out to the desert surrounding the town.

Pitahaya Festival

The lovely pitahaya flower is also edible, and may be used to make tea.

Every July, when the cacti are teeming with ripening fruit, the festival is organized around a pitahaya gathering contest. Participants gather as much fruit as possible and competitions are held for the largest fruit gathered, best presentation of a collection of fruit, greatest variety collected, and, of course, the greatest quantity of fruit gathered by any one competitor.

The festival includes a number of cultural and gastronomical events, including exhibitions of traditional dance, music, and plenty of delectable food, many incorporating the pitahaya fruit among the ingredients. Local artisans and businesses sell their wares from booths erected in the town’s cultural center. The three day event culminates on Sunday with the announcement of winners of the fruit gathering competitions and crowning of the festival queen. A big party commences that evening, with live music and dancing into the wee hours.

One of my favorite Baja stories concerns pitahaya and the peninsula’s now extinct native Pericu Indians’ passion for it. Every year when the fruit ripened, the Pericues would leave their posts at the missions where they labored to gorge themselves. The result was an orgy of eating, singing, dancing, and other carnal activities. One of the mission priests, Father Piccolo, regularly complained in his journal writings that the Pericues were lazy and the peninsula harsh and inhospitable, with little to recommend it. Pitahaya season only confirmed his opinion of the natives’ slovenly ways. Until one day, he discovered something positive about the Pericues when they treated him to a special feast that included a delicious bread. However, when a visiting priest described to him the origins of the bread’s flour, he blanched and his negative opinion of the peninsula and its inhabitants was forever entrenched. The bread, it turned out, was made from the seeds of the pitahaya gathered in a “second harvest.” While gorging themselves on the fruit, the Pericues in one area would all defecate on the same large rock. Once dried, the feces were collected, ground up, and the seeds winnowed out, toasted, and ground into flour. I don’t know if they’ll be selling bread at the festival, but you might want to be sure of the origins of the flour if they do!

An 18th century drawing of two Pericu women by George Shelvocke, an English privateer.

An 18th century drawing of two Pericu women by George Shelvocke, an English privateer.

This is certainly one of the most flavorful and unique festivals in the East Cape firmly rooted in the ancient history of the land. So don’t miss it! Festival dates are dependent on the ripeness of the fruit, but the 2013 festival is currently slated for the second weekend of July, with the queen to be crowned on Sunday, July 14th.

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About Dawn Pier

In 2002, I packed the remains of a life I no longer wanted into the bed of my silver Nissan pickup and drove west across Canada, South down the Pacific Coast Highway and on into Mexico

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